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The War for Mobile Computing Just Got (Even More) Interesting, Who Will Emerge as the Winner?

A philosopher once said, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”  And in the war for the mobile enterprise, with Research in Motion in a real struggle for its very corporate survival, for a while it looked like we were down to two final combatants:  Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.  After all, Microsoft’s foray into smart phones hadn’t exactly wowed IT departments around the world.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, like knocked down boxer staggering to his feet at the count of nine, Microsoft’s surprise release of a sleek new tablet and a radical UI change in its Windows 8 operating system brought them back into the fight.

Betting Big on Surface and Metro

In June the rumors about Microsoft entering the tablet computing space became reality as Steve Ballmer formally announced the Surface tablet device.

Doubters have talked about how Microsoft’s move will trigger problems with its OEM partners as the Surface could potentially dilute their market share of PCs and laptops (and most importantly, future Win8 tablets).  Microsoft admitted as much in its 2012 second quarter 10K, saying “Our Surface devices will compete with products made by our OEM partners, which may affect their commitment to our platform.”  No doubt HP executives, whose short-lived webOS-based tablet was a business case in spotty execution, were counting on brisk sales of Win8-based HP tablets prior to Ballmer’s announcement.  But now HP as well as other Microsoft partners will need to re-think their tablet strategies.

On the positive side, while not generally available (as of this writing) for in-depth testing by product reviewers, the initial perception of the Surface device has been generally positive in terms of look, feel, and baseline functionality.  And for those who doubt Microsoft’s ability to win in the hardware space, the Xbox’s dominant 49% market share in the US market shows that Ballmer and team indeed have the capability to successfully manage and grow a hardware platform over successive generations.  Gaming is a different market, to be sure, but the Xbox’s consistent improvements and share growth since its 2001 inception point to Microsoft’s often overlooked competency in hardware life cycle management.

For all the buzz surrounding the Surface, the October release of Windows 8 has grabbed its share of headlines as well.  Initial reviews of Windows 8 are a mixed bag, with critics questioning potential PC and laptop user interface issues; Metro’s UI is optimized for touch-based devices.  Proponents most often point to the application development benefits:  developers need only know JavaScript, CSS, and HTML5 to create Win8 apps, making the idea-to-market development cycle quicker and more efficient for the developer community.

Choose Your Mobile Enterprise Flavor: Open, Closed, or Microsoft

While tablet war rages on with an interesting multiplicity of players (a few years ago could you have imagined Barnes & Noble competing with Samsung?), the race for the dominant operating system for the mobile enterprise is down to three choices:  Android, Apple, and Microsoft.

It’s hard to imagine Apple coming out on top in the enterprise space given its strategic adherence to closed, proprietary systems.  While this philosophy has worked fine in the consumer space, it’s been almost universally frowned upon by IT departments.  Will this change in the post-Jobs era?  It’s probably too early to know, but for the foreseeable future Apple’s kimono will continue to be tightly closed.  Microsoft, on the other hand, has enjoyed unparalleled success and dominance in the non-mobile enterprise space, and this may offer advantages for IT managers as they plan their mobile user roadmaps for the next year or two.  But as of this writing the full range of Win8 benefits (and potential downsides) are still open to much speculation.

The growing popularity of open systems may end up being the big surprise here, as more and more consulting and integration companies bridge the perceived security and support gaps that for years have (rightly or wrongly) plagued the reputation of open systems like Android.  Many IT managers may forego iOS and Win8 altogether, opting instead for the flexibility and 100% customization open system app development offers.  With the future of mobile computing in constant flux, a strong argument for open systems’ inherent adaptability can be made.

So who do you think will win the war for mobile computing?  I welcome your thoughts and comments.